By Youseph Yazdi
The vision of an independent Kurdistan took a major step back in recent weeks. Anyone familiar with the history of this heartfelt but ever disappointing dream was not surprised. Neither are they surprised that what was thought to be a long-term relationship turned out to be a one night stand. One need not go all the way back to the post-World War One settlements, when world powers carved out the borders of several states in the Near East only to create the largest ethnic group without a state of their own. As recent as the 1970s, Iran, at the time ruled by Muhammad Reza Pahlavi, supported Kurdish forces in northern Iraq against Iran’s main threat, Saddam Hussein. When Saddam and the Shah signed their historic Algiers accord to quiet (temporarily) that conflict, the Shah’s Kurdish allies in Iraq were for all intents and purposes abandoned. Neither the Israelis nor the Americans, who have shed many a tear during the recent events in northern Syria, shed a tear for them then, given their close ties to the Shah.
Since then, Kurdish dreams of independence have been used by various forces, each time for a short time, for their own strategic ends. The Soviet Union used the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, against Turkey to weaken NATO’s eastern flank. The Iranians, even though under new management after the 1979 revolution, again used Iraqi Kurds against Saddam, just as Saddam and the Israelis used Iran’s Kurds against Iran. The use and subsequent abandoning of the Kurds of Iraq in the course of the first Gulf War by the US played out, as today, on the TV screens of the world, again to much hand-wringing.
In each case, after the heated phase of their flings with the Kurds was over, each partner reverted back to established geopolitical realities. Much to the chagrin of the Kurds, the establish reality of existing states and stable borders was and remains too compelling. Even for the Israelis, who have a long-term strategic interest in creating new ethnic states and smaller states in their very dangerous neighborhood, there has been repeated cycles of excitement and disappointment. In the past four decades, viable and mouth-watering opportunities have arisen in sequence to dismember Iran, then Iraq, then Syria, and now Turkey, in most cases with Kurds as the primary (but not only) vehicle, and each time ending in a reversion to the status quo ante.
This is an indictment of the morality in geopolitics, which for the naive is shocking and for the experienced is shocking in the presumption of its existence.
At its core, it is an injustice that a Kurd living in Iran or Iraq or Syria or Turkey faces sometimes insurmountable barriers to visiting relatives in a neighboring country by borders and politics. It is an injustice that Kurdish language and culture and political traditions are subservient to those of Persians, Turks, and Arabs. This is equally true for Azeris, split between Iran and Azerbaijan, or Shia, split between Iran, Iraq and Saudi Arabia. Or Druze split between Lebanon, Israel, and Syria. The list is long. The list is endless, actually, if one considers how easy it is to divide and subdivide people.
For the Kurds, the injustice has the widest geography and longest timeline. One vignette occurred in the early days of the Iranian Revolution in 1979. Immediately after the February victory of the revolution, fighting broke out across Iran in what seemed to be every province. In the southeast, it was Baluchis, in the northeast, Turkmen. In the northwest, it was inter-ethnic conflict between Azeris and Kurds. The state propaganda at the time was that in each of these, foreign forces, like Saddam or Saudi Arabia or Israel, or pro-shah anti-revolutionaries were totally responsible for getting revolutionary brothers to fight each other. In reality, these outside forces were active, but only adding fuel and oxygen to embers of long-standing ethnic tensions.
The most serious fighting at that time was going on in Iranian Kurdistan, where Kurds were split between pro-revolutionary groups and those factions who — no doubt egged on and armed by others — saw this as a unique opportunity for Kurdish independence. These later groups were pitted against young poorly trained and equipped soldiers of the newly formed Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corp (IRGC), under the leadership of Mustapha Chamran.
At the time I had the opportunity to visit Kurdish regions in Iran, and speak to both separatist as well as revolutionaries. One conversation has remained a cornerstone of my own understanding of the issue. In our small apartment in Tehran, my father, who had arrived in Iran with Chamran only a few months prior, was Foreign Minister, and maintained prior friendships with Kurdish nationalists and leftist leaders. He routinely would have them in for heated discussions. Our apartment had no furniture, just folded blankets along the walls, which served as backrests for visitors. Some days, it would be Chamran, just returned from Sanandaj or Mahabad, relating hair-raising accounts of how his men were getting slaughtered with little support from the chaotic new government in Tehran. Some days, it was Kurdish leaders, who shared equally harrowing tales of injustice at the hands of the IRGC and pro-revolution Kurdish groups.
One point made by my father at the time, I believe, still resonates today. Kurdish statehood won based on foreign outside military power will never be peaceful or sustainable. Countries don’t make long term friends, they have long term interests. Unless you have the deeply rooted influence in the U.S., Europe, and the former Soviet Union that Israel enjoys, any outside power that props you up now, will for sure abandon you later. And in the interim, even if you succeed in the short run to carve out a state, the conflict created with your neighboring states will never let you prosper.
The only path for Kurdish resurgence, he pleaded, is through joining with democratic forces in Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey to help all of us live in peace and prosperity. On the contrary, the conflict in Iranian Kurdistan so soon after a popular revolution, and the steady parade of dead young men returning in coffins from the west, was helping to shift the balance of power in Iran from pro-democracy parties to militant religious fanatics. By taking arms against the territorial integrity of the Iranian state, Kurds were not only hurting themselves, they were going to make life worse for all Iranians who cared about freedom and democracy.
I suspect Erdogan and the AK party today also sees opportunity in violent conflict with Kurds to solidify their own power, just as they saw a major threat to their power when Kurdish political parties fully engage in democratic processes in recent Turkish elections. In Iraq, the whole of Iraq needs Kurdish involvement and leadership in all aspects of the state, and Kurds have created some degree of autonomy. But as we saw in the Barzani-led independence referendum, attempts to unilaterally declare independence have only backfired, weakening the Kurdish region and strengthening radical sectarian forces.
In Syria, the YPG has created one of the most democratic and inclusive civil administrations and military forces the Middle East has ever seen. Their problem has always been that it was propped up by a foreign force. The testament of history was clear that this would not last, and the end game would be again, a reversion to the centrality of powerful states. The years wherein the YPG were in a powerful position with respect to the Syrian state was a perfect time to negotiate a long term arrangement that would, like the KRG, create a limited but sustainable degree of autonomy.
But, alas, another lesson of Middle East history is that when a king or party is powerful, they never negotiate, and when they weaken, they are in no position to do so. If, for example, when Turkey threatened to invade Afrin, the YPG had agreed, as encouraged by Iran and Russia, to allow the Syrian Arab Army to guard the border, they could have prevented a total rout from that province and the displacement of thousands of Kurds from their historical homes and villages. That bitter lesson was not learned and is today being repeated as the Rojava dream is being cared up before our eyes between the Turkish and Syrian armies.
The long-term solution to the injustices of the existing state boundaries in the Middle East will not be resolved through civil wars, but rather, through the example of the European Union. For example, Hungarians are a large and proud nation, dispersed between a half a dozen states in central Europe. But today, almost all hold EU passports and have no little or no barriers to live and prosper across many state borders. The same is true for the Irish, and many other ethnic groups, with or without their own formal state.
Is it so far-fetched to think that in a generation, Kurdish citizens of Iran, Turkey, Syria, Iraq would be able to travel and work freely and live with respect for their unique heritage, culture, and language? Is it crazy to imagine a Middle Eastern Union, that would bring peace and prosperity to over 200 million war weary people? Perhaps if you asked a German or a Frenchman in 1940 the same question it would have seemed crazy to them. But it happened, and within a generation. It could happen in the Middle East too, but it will require Kurds to join hands with Persians, Turks, Arabs, and all other ethnic and religious groups in the region to work together within each state to advance healthy political progress. Regardless of the improbability of it, it is the only option for Kurdish unity that has a chance of success.
Youseph Yazdi earned a PhD from the University of Texas at Austin and MBA from the Wharton School of Business, and serves on the faculty at Johns Hopkins University. His father, the late Ebrahim Yazdi, served as Iran’s Foreign Minister, MP for Tehran, and Secretary General of the Freedom Movement of Iran.